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The Great Decoupling of the U.S. Economy

December 14, 2012
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Source: Andrew McAfee’s Blog:

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What’s going on? Why have the things that workers care about – jobs and wages – become decoupled from the the other things that  economy-watchers care about? So far, explanations for this unhappy phenomenon include tax and policy changes, and the effects of globalization and offshoring. These are clearly powerful forces, but there’s one other one: technological progress.

I’ve been talking a lot about this latter force here and elsewhere, and it’s the subject of Race Against the Machine, a short e-book Erik Brynjolfsson and I wrote that came out a bit more than a year ago (we’re working on a full-length sequel now).

Our argument, in brief, is that digital technologies have been able to do routine work for a while now. This allows them to substitute for less-skilled and -educated workers, and puts a lot of downward pressure on the median wage. As computers and robots get more and more powerful while simultaneously getting cheaper and more widespread this phenomenon spreads, to the point where economically rational employers prefer buying more technology over hiring more workers. In other words, they prefer capital over labor. This preference affects both wages and job volumes. And the situation will only accelerate as robots and computers learn to do more and more, and to take over jobs that we currently think of not as ‘routine,’ but as requiring a lot of skill and/or education.

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